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MSG symptom complex

Definition

This problem is also called Chinese restaurant syndrome. It involves a set of symptoms that some people have after eating food with the additive monosodium glutamate (MSG). MSG is commonly used in food prepared in Chinese restaurants.

Alternative Names

Hot dog headache; Glutamate-induced asthma; MSG (monosodium glutamate) syndrome; Chinese restaurant syndrome; Kwok's syndrome

Causes

Reports of more severe reactions to Chinese food first appeared in 1968. At that time, MSG was thought to be the cause of these symptoms. There have been many studies since then that have failed to show a linkage between MSG and the symptoms some people describe.

The typical form of MSG syndrome is not a true allergic reaction, though true allergies to MSG have also been reported.

For this reason, MSG continues to be used in some meals. However, it is possible that some people are very sensitive to food additives. MSG is chemically similar to one of the brain's most important chemicals, glutamate.

Symptoms

Symptoms include:

  • Chest pain
  • Flushing
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches
  • Numbness or burning in or around the mouth
  • Sense of facial pressure or swelling
  • Sweating

Exams and Tests

Chinese restaurant syndrome is most often diagnosed based on these symptoms. The health care provider may ask the following questions as well:

  • Have you eaten Chinese food within the past 2 hours?
  • Have you eaten any other food that may contain monosodium glutamate within the past 2 hours?

The following signs may also be used to aid in diagnosis:

Treatment

Treatment depends on the symptoms. Most mild symptoms, such as headache or flushing, need no treatment.

Life-threatening symptoms require immediate medical attention. They may be similar to other severe allergic reactions and include:

  • Chest pain
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling of the throat

Outlook (Prognosis)

Most people recover from mild cases of Chinese restaurant syndrome without treatment and have no lasting problems.

People who have had life-threatening reactions need to be extra careful about what they eat. They should also always carry medicines prescribed by their provider for emergency treatment.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Get emergency medical help right away if you have the following symptoms:

  • Chest pain
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling of the lips or throat

References

Aronson JK. Monosodium glutamate. In: Aronson JK, ed. Meyler's Side Effects of Drugs. 16th ed. Waltham, MA: Elsevier; 2016:1103-1104.

Bush RK, Taylor SL. Reactions to food and drug additives. In: Adkinson NF, Bochner BS, Burks AW, et al, eds. Middleton's Allergy: Principles and Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 82.


Review Date: 10/12/2018
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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